There's A Good Reason Why Online Sites Shouldn't Be Liable For The Actions Of Its Users

from the not-this-again dept

Over the years, we've had plenty of stories concerning the liability of websites when users post defamatory or libelous content. The law (section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) is pretty clear, keeping site owners free of liability for the actions of their users. However, as yet another such case comes to light, this time in California, it seems like many people misunderstand why the law is written this way. That article has a typical quote from someone who doesn't seem to understand why the law is written this way, saying: "While protection to ferret out the truth is nice, I kind of wish the courts or Congress would revisit this law. It bothers me to run content online that is clearly defamatory but to get to say it's OK because we can't get sued. It's like a legal neener-neener." That statement is wrong. The law does not say "it's OK." What it does is make it clear who is liable: the individual who actually made the defamatory statements. That's all it's saying. It doesn't make sense for the owner of the site to be liable, since they are not the ones who are making the libelous statements. They may be easier to target and easier to sue, but they aren't the ones who made the statement, and thus, they should not be liable. So, this isn't a case where the law is "different" because "it's the internet" or where one side gets a free pass. The law simply clarifies that the liability for libel should be on those who actually made the libelous statement.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Daniel, Sep 8th, 2006 @ 6:10pm

    Should businesses be liable for the grafitti on their walls? No it's the one who put it there who should be in trouble.

     

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  2.  
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    Tay Ween, Sep 8th, 2006 @ 6:14pm

    It's amazing that some people out there don't understand that last sentence. I guess you have to feel bad for them and save the hate for those who do understand it but choose to misinterpret it anyway.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 8th, 2006 @ 6:36pm

    Perhaps not a conformist viewpoint, but I do believe that there should be some sort of adjudication made on the hosting of said comments. Not ALL offensive posts can be monitored, but reported abuses should be dealt with. I can't tell you how many times asshats have put my e-mail address on offensive postings, and I ask the site to remove at least the fraudulent signature line -- and they refuse. There is no lower form of endorsement than lazy ineptitude.

     

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  4.  
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    Matthew, Sep 8th, 2006 @ 6:41pm

    If someone in your house...

    used a racist or defamatory slur should you be responsible for it? There are all kinds of mitigating circumstances too. What if he/she/it broke into your house and threatened the President? Is that on your head??

    No, the twit that stated the remark is the one that should be in trouble. Now if it is your option to not have that person over again then great, but thats your choice about your property. If it was a public place, that might not be such an easy premise with which to contend.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 8th, 2006 @ 6:48pm

    The law is correct

    You couldn't charge the phone company for conspiracy if two people were to plot a murder in a phone conversation.

    You go after the parites who made the comment & not the medium in which they were made.

     

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  6.  
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    Scottux, Sep 8th, 2006 @ 7:17pm

    Damn that new-fangled internet.

    "Should businesses be liable for the grafitti on their walls? No it's the one who put it there who should be in trouble."


    Exactly. That's all that needed to be said.

     

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  7.  
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    MDS, Sep 8th, 2006 @ 9:09pm

    Extending the metaphor

    "Should businesses be liable for the graffiti on their walls? No it's the one who put it there who should be in trouble."

    Many cities' ordnances require removal of graffiti within a specified period of time. Can one can be free from legal liable but still be required to note and remove the message?

     

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  8.  
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    Jesse McNelis, Sep 8th, 2006 @ 9:18pm

    Re:

    I guess it's time for you to look in to cryptography.
    If you make a point of cryptographically signing all your posts then people can not make false comments by you.

     

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  9.  
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    Pappycack, Sep 8th, 2006 @ 9:21pm

    spraypaint

    What we need to do is spraypaint some libel on the cars of these retards and then sue them for being responsible for that very content.

     

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  10.  
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    Brave by Ignorance, Sep 9th, 2006 @ 2:10am

    Graffitti ?

    i happened to come across this blog by chance. and i should say that i fel like shooting google in the head for popping it on my creen for the simple fact that i do not understand a word of what is said. Y did google think i was arguably sane to read whatever was written there and to make a comment on it?

    I think somebody should take the blame. It would be nicer if it were someone with deep pockets since our legal system heavily favors ppl with $s. i promise u i am no Commie.

    Btw, whoever reads this will be thinking what i am on about... the sad fact is i do not know either. if u feel like bloggin me or making me sound like an 'asshat' as was netioned in on of the comments, pls feel free to do so. Its not my intention to hurt anyone, but its just the mood that i am in that makes me cranky

    Cheers

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2006 @ 6:16am

    liability for site owners

    as i understood it, now keep in mind i read about this a few years ago, the site owner is not liable if they delete post and do some form of moderation on the site but if they don't monitor it at all then they can't be held liable for any offensive post(s)

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2006 @ 7:24am

    Re: Graffitti ?

    Brave by Ignorance said:
    > i happened to come across this blog...

    And blah blah blah.

    Your nick becomes you. What are you, an idiot?

    "I think somebody should take the blame." Yeah. Some one. Anyone. You don't care who, do you. Takling the blame. Yeah, that's all we need, and the world will be fun again, huh?

     

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  13.  
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    JUST ME, Sep 9th, 2006 @ 9:59am

    If the site owner can be proven to be involved in the incitement of illegal activity they should be investigated. For instance, if the site is www.support-crime.com and then people post criminal incitement. Also, a judge could see through false disclaimers such as "we dont support crime".

     

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  14.  
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    Ryan, Sep 9th, 2006 @ 10:32am

    yeah..

    I get these all the time. I run a site that lets my users send text messages for free via the web... and every time somebody gets a mean message I get a nice threatening letter.

    It's so often I have a form letter quoting the CDA already saved, just enter their name and send.

    You have no idea how many people actually say "can't you censor my messages adn only send me the nice ones".

    It's scary that people want censorship of their own messages.

     

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  15.  
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    Amos, Sep 9th, 2006 @ 12:54pm

    It's interesting that network television stations and radio stations are held liable for any obscenities broadcast during a live transmision.

    As for my two cents: I don't think sites should be held liable for the actions of their users, but they SHOULD be held responsible for their response to rule violations. If business owners, site operatiors, and individuals don't start developing some personal responsibility, then that responsibility WILL be legislated. I'd like to think people could do it voluntarily, but there are just too many people who decide they get to be jerks to the world 'because nobody can do anything about it."

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2006 @ 7:38pm

    Re:

    huh?

    1, its a little thing called freedom of speech.
    2, if its libal then it's libel to the individual that said it

    now, there could be a sticky situation regarding the anonymity of the internt. Who's to say that the person who posted the comment is not in fact the owner of the site? IE, I create a web portal, host it with a host site, sign up as a bogus user and say what i want (safe in the fact that they cant touch me cos they dont know its me).

    Other than that, 1 and 2 above apply ( just my 2 cents)

     

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  17.  
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    Ziggy, Sep 9th, 2006 @ 10:10pm

    2 words

    depraved indifference...

    not monitoring uR "hosted" site demonstrates at VERY least complacency...

    if a guest at a party became beligerent and abusive, wouldNt he/she be asked to leave? and wouldNt then an apology be in order to the rest of uR guests?

    And as far as a public utility diseminating a damaging rhetoric goes...if it could be proved they had knowledge of it, you'd better believe they would share in the culpability.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 10th, 2006 @ 5:49am

    Re: Damn that new-fangled internet.

    No, that's not all that needs to be said.

    Sure, the business isn't liable for the graffitti, since they didn't put it there, but they should be liable if they don't clean it up in a reasonable time.

     

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  19.  
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    Cleverboy, Sep 10th, 2006 @ 7:56am

    It's Simple, but not THAT Simple

    It's true, online sites should not be liable for "libel" charges concerning the actions of its users, BUT at the same time, under certain circumstances (not all) there has to be some related liability there, if they are made aware of blossoming problems with content publishing abuse and willfully look the other way.

    It's easy to confuse whether someone is liable for a libel charge, and whether they have liability at all for the actions of their users. That is a much more murkier topic.

    I'd imagine that if YouTube didn't have a "hate speech" clause in its TOS, or if they didn't reserve the right not to host certain videos, there would be many lawsuits if they turned the other way on video "How to Guides" on, for instance, how to go about harming individuals with ethnicities or races the poster doesn't like.

    What if some teenager films poisoning themselves or some other delayed act of suicide and posts it on one of these services before they actually die? There's a certain point where responsible service providers are compelled to act short of the point where they would meet a legal challenge.

     

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  20.  
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    Geeb, Sep 10th, 2006 @ 10:25am

    Not quite the same

    "Should businesses be liable for the grafitti on their walls? No it's the one who put it there who should be in trouble."

    Only a good comparison if the business in question is a wall where people can exchange messages in spray paint. For J. Random Shopowner, grafitti isn't an intended or sanctioned use of his wall, whereas (say) the comments section on a blog is there to let people say stuff.

    More kudos to this post: "Not ALL offensive posts can be monitored, but reported abuses should be dealt with."

     

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  21.  
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    John, Sep 10th, 2006 @ 4:04pm

    Re: Site liability for libel or slander

    I agree with the statement about graffitti, but let me pose this resultant condition just to spur the conversation:

    What if the owner of the wall that was tagged were to refuse to remove the libelous or slanderous graffitti? Would that become a tacit endorsement of the offense?

    I think the owners have a responsibility to remove the libel or slander when its brought to their attention.

    John

     

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  22.  
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    sean, Sep 10th, 2006 @ 5:27pm

    most websites also put "We are not reliable for your anyone who reads this' actions" or something to this extent, those ones are double safe, and i also wonder if this and Intl. law, because if it isn't, then i wonder what would happen to a website in japan that a US person gets scr**** on by following their directions and it doesn't say it

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 11th, 2006 @ 9:50am

    RE: Grafitti

    > Should businesses be liable for the grafitti on their walls? No it's the one who put it there who should be in trouble.

    Good analogy. Business often allow and even encourage people to grafitti their walls, even going to the expense of hiring software developers to make walls that support grafitti.

     

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  24.  
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    pracheer gupta, Apr 24th, 2007 @ 12:33am

    I am on both sides!!

    Well i dunno if the law is totally correct. Let me put both sides of view as i see it.
    If a user puts defamatory comments, of course the site owner is not responsible and its not his fault, but since he has provided a forum for user to comment atleast he should allow comments from user who are authorized to do so. He can even use some text scanning tools to check for absurdity. Its not a fool proof method but atleast there can be some laws mandating owners to check for atleast some level of defamatory comments. Of course its not possible for him to check all the comments but atleast he can try to use stuff that might make it difficult for those kindaa users to post such stuff. Likeways graffiti is not the responsibility of the owners but atleast they can provide some basic checks that might make it difficult for people to put graffiti.
    On the other hand, The main reason net has revolutionised the world is because it knows no boudaries, once any sort of checking starts, it might be start of a much larger threat to the net which might undermine what is stood for in the first place.
    May be i went a bit rational in putting myself forward, I am open for comments and criticism

     

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